Might As Well Eat

Frank Bruni’s piece in today’s NYT captures the schizophrenia and confusion surrounding meat consumption in the current dietgeist (as Dairy Queen calls it). Free-range isn’t really free any more, lobsters suffer in their holding tanks and will no longer be offered for sale and slaughter at Whole Foods, foie gras is under attack, wild caught fish suffer on the line. It’s a sensible run down of the hither-thither reasoning people have started to go through when they try to decide what to have for dinner. (I like the part where Bruni describes the guy who wanted to meet Michael Pollan to buy his steer. At a steak restaurant).

By the end of the piece, you’re ready to become a vegetarian, sort of via a Dorothy Parker-esque path of reasoning: “Razors pain you; rivers are damp; acids stain you; and drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful; nooses give; gas smells awful; you might as well live.”

You know, “Rosie suffers, gooses binge, steers are corn-fed, you might as well become a vegetarian.” But I think that’s a cop out. For one, and I know that not everyone agrees with me on this, you do have to eat animal products of some kind. Maybe you don’t eat meat, but it’s simply implausible for multiple generations of humans to subsist without (at least) dairy and eggs, or more sensibly, meat or fish of some kind. And the difference between feedlot beef steers and industrial milk cows is minimal, frankly. They either lead a miserable life and die to be eaten by us, or they lead a miserable life and die, after having produced a lagoon of milk, to be fed to our dogs.

Furthermore, say you do go totally vegetarian. What do you eat? A lotta corn, soy, wheat maybe? Big fat monocrops stretching across the prairie displacing songbirds and leaching pesticides into the soil. I don’t know that it’s really that much more environmentally friendly or pro-animal, by any accounting.

It’s thus near impossible take animal suffering out of our personal food chain by simply eliminating a food group. Animals suffer — to one degree or another — whenever we lift a fork. So, thanks, Frank for the reminder that this is confusing stuff. Eating doesn’t come easy and there are no get out of jail free cards. You have to think about the lobster, and the chicken, and the cow, and the oyster (Bruni wonders prettily if they, “dream briny dreams, scream briny screams”) and decide if — for you — it’s free-range enough, grass-fed enough, organic enough. Maybe you have a sliding scale depending on your location, the type of animal you’re considering, how much money you have, or how hungry you are. But we have started to embrace the ambiguity and the contradictions of what we eat. To cite Pollan, that’s the omnivore’s dilemma, and it’s something we’re being re-introduced to. Which is great. Because it’s kind of what makes us human.

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